Photo of Alan Lester

Alan Lester
Professor of Historical Geography (Geography)
T: +44 (0)1273 678473 or +44 (0)1273 877238


My research follows four broad, intersecting themes, each of which is prominent in my most recent book, written with Fae Dussart, Colonization and the Origins of Humanitarian Governance: Protecting Aborigines across the Nineteenth-Century British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2014). The book was the result of funding from The Leverhulme Trust, which is also funding my current research project, Snapshots of Empire.

The first and broadest theme is the exploration of relational space in the colonial world. In particular I have examined the ways in which relationships between competing colonial discourses, projects and networks have shaped metropolitan-colony relations in the nineteenth century British Empire. This theme is most pronounced in the book Imperial Networks: Creating Identities in Nineteenth Century South Africa and Britain (2001) (extracted in Routledge's New Imperial Histories Reader, 2009), and articles in the Journal of Historical Geography with Sam Hyson (2012)),The New Zealand Geographer with Fae Dussart (2008), Geographical Research (2006), History Compass (2005), and History Workshop Journal (2002). The Leverhulme funded Snapshots of Empire project is investigating imperial governmentality as an exercise in multiplicity and simultaneity across a global terrain, rather than one of succesion and chronology in any particular place:

The second theme is an interest in the people, ideas, discourses and practices of humanitarianism. The ways in which humanitarian projects were and are constructed in contestation with other transformative interventions has long been a preoccupation of mine, manifested especially in articles in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2002), Progress in Human Geography with David Lambert (2004), Gender Place and Culture with Fae Dussart (2009) and the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, with Rob Skinner (2012). As a result of post-humanist critiques of humanism as a whole, I became interested in the construction of new, cosmopolitan humanisms with which to defend some of the more positive aspects of universalism (Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 2011), and in more-than-human histories of Empire (The East India Company and the Natural World, edited with Vinita Damodaran and Anna Winterbottom (2014)).

The third theme is the ways in which the life geographies of particular people can allow insight into agency, power, politics and practice in colonial spaces. This interest is most obviously represented in the book that David Lambert and I co-edited, Colonial Lives Across the British Empire: Imperial Careering in the Long Nineteenth Century (2006). It is also traced through studies of George Augustus Robinson in Johnston and Rolls' Friendly Mission Companion Volume (2008), Thomas Fowell Buxton in Gilbert and Tiffin's Burden or Benefit: Imperial Benevolence and its Legacies (2008), George Arthur in Annals of the Association of American Geographers (2012), and George Grey in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2016).

The fourth theme is the experience of Indigenous peoples undergoing settler colonialism and the ways in which they both constructed counter-networks and manipulated colonial networks within and beyond Empire. I am International Partner Investigator on the Australian Research Council funded Minutes of Evidence project, at the heart of which lies the performance of the play Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country, about the experience of Aboriginal people under settler colonialism: theme is represented in the book edited with Zoe Laidlaw, Indigenous Communities and Settler Colonialism: Land Holding, Loss and Survival in an Interconnected World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Proposals for doctoral research in these and associated areas are welcome.